‘You shall judge of a man by his foes as well as by his friends’. David Stuart Davies looks at Joseph Conrad’s tale of a man’s mission to gain redemption after an act of cowardice.
‘He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it, It seemed a necessity, and it was addressed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else.’
Joseph Conrad (1857- 1924) is regarded as one of the greatest novelists writing in the English language. What is especially remarkable about this achievement is the fact that having been born in Poland, he did not speak English fluently until his twenties. He wrote many stories which featured a nautical background, as in Lord Jim, which was published in 1900 and established the author as one of the great storytellers of the twentieth century. While the incidents in the novel are rooted in the Victorian age, their telling and the themes imbued in the text are fresh and modern. There is also a darkness to this and Conrad’s other novels which adds an aching realism to his oeuvre.
Lord Jim is a book about courage and cowardice, self-knowledge and personal growth. It is set in the context of social change and colonial expansion in late Victorian England and embodies in the central character the values and turmoil of a fading empire. Jim is haunted by his failure to be true to his desire to be a good and heroic individual. One moment of weakness scars his life. He is the chief mate on the steamship Patna and during a voyage towards Mecca with a cargo of pilgrims, the ship strikes a submerged obstacle and begins to sink. Jim is horrified to see the crew lowering a lifeboat to save their own skins, leaving the pilgrims to drown. However, at the last moment, he weakens and joins the crew in the lifeboat. The consciousness of this monstrous crime and the attendant disgrace forever torment Jim. Despite the fact that the pilgrims do not drown, the significance of what Jim regards as an immoral and cowardly action is the crux of the novel.
Jim is the only member of the crew who elects to face the official consequences of his action. He is stripped of his master’s certificate and is publicly censured. The rest of the novel follows his attempts at coming to terms with himself and his past misdeed, desperately seeking acceptance and redemption.
Jim becomes a wanderer in far-off places, encountering reminders of his moral lapse wherever he goes. Finally, he finds a kind of peace in Patusan, a remote island where the chief of a friendly tribe makes him his trusted advisor. The natives refer to him as ‘Tuan Jim’. Tuan means ‘Lord’, a common form of polite address to superiors. It is on this island that for a while that Jim finds peace and contentment, but this is eventually disturbed by the arrival of pirates. It is at this critical moment in the novel that Jim is finally able to find a full remission of his sin.
Not only is Conrad’s descriptive writing both lyrical and psychologically compelling, but the novel is also remarkable for its sophisticated structure. In the main, the story is related by the character Marlow, a sea captain who helps Jim after his fall from grace. Within his narration, other characters also tell their own stories and express their own opinions. By this method, the reader is presented with events seen from different viewpoints allowing us to gain a fully rounded portrait of Lord Jim.
However, on publication, not all readers were enamoured by the novel. Conrad records in his Author’s Note to the 1917 edition that an Italian lady had observed that ‘It is so morbid’. Certainly, it is gloomy, as are most of his works, as he tries in fiction to come to terms with the cruelties of life. In Lord Jim, Conrad’s deep pessimism is clear. As in a Greek tragedy the mistakes of the past follow men like a curse and can never be fully repaired because, as Conrad asserts, that is the way things are.
When Marlow parts from Jim for the last time, his boat pulls away from the shore to leave Jim on the sand alone, with the night coming:
‘The twilight was ebbing fast from the sky above his head…he himself appeared no bigger than a child – then only a speck, a tiny white speck, that seemed to catch all the light left in a darkened world.’
The implication is clear. Conrad is saying that the world is dark and full of corruption, but if one person can live his life in the light, then there is some hope for humanity.
There have been two films based on Lord Jim. The first, a reasonable attempt to bring the book to the screen, was a silent version in 1925, directed by Victor Fleming.
The second movie appeared in 1965 starring Peter O’Toole, who also acted as one of the producers. James Mason was Marlow. The screenplay written by the director Richard Brooks included elements of Conrad’s novel but was far from faithful to the tone and message of the original. One reviewer observed that ‘Brooks teetered between making a full-blooded, no-holds-barred adventure yarn and the psychological study that Conrad wrote.’ Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it a ‘big, gaudy clanging colour film’ that ‘misses being either Conrad or sheer entertainment cinema.’
So, the advice would be to stick to the book. It is not an easy read and certainly, the early chapters are slow and somewhat ponderous, but as the novel gets into its stride, it blossoms and grows into a great work of literature.